Grappling with the loss of its queen, Britain is simultaneously embarking on a process of rapid transition – and it starts with a face and a few key words. Postage stamps, speeches, national anthems: all of this will change in face and verbiage from Queen at King, His majesty to His Majesty, as Elizabeth’s son, Charles III, takes power.
But those differences only scratch the surface of potentially much deeper changes, and a looming sense of foreboding is only whispering, as the nation unites to try to ensure a smooth transition of royal power.
Yet there are questions that will only intensify: Will the aging son pale in comparison to his mother’s standard of living? How far has society come since Elizabeth took the crown in 1952? Will Charles’ past as a prince come back to haunt him?
Let’s put it a little more bluntly: how long will his reign last?
Witty, poised and vivacious, Queen Elizabeth II was a beloved figurehead for the nation, guiding her people from a comfortable distance through seven decades of turmoil and jubilation. Even as the most well-known public figure on the planet, the Queen had a remarkable knack for keeping herself alone – just enough. His interactions with the public were limited, on-camera appearances carefully orchestrated; and when she did speak, it was just enough to keep her subjects and the world attentive, without attracting negative attention.
Wavering popularity in the past
Through it all, Elizabeth boasted record approval ratings for almost every year of her reign, more popular with the public than virtually any other member of the royal family, past or present.
King Charles has had his popularity ups and downs as a prince. Having been in the public eye all his life, the King is in no way new to the whims of publicity, good or bad. His marriage to his first wife, Princess Diana, was a big moment. His infidelity and subsequent divorce – and the subsequent tragic death of Lady Di – was the lowest of the low. The nation and the world seemed to be erecting a wall against then-Prince Charles and his former flame and new wife, Camilla, a wall that never really came down.
Will he do and say the right things?
Now that he is in the top job, the question of Charles’ popularity and the public’s perception of the royal family as a whole is no longer a personal one. It’s political.
In light of the palace’s cruel treatment of Meghan Markle, information about racially insensitive comments by a senior royal seem to suggest that the British culture of passive-aggressive racism can rage in the royal family. This is inevitably linked in public consciousness to the history of British colonialism which led to a series of nations struggle for independence of the crown.
Identity politics, Internet traps
As Elizabeth’s death provides an opportunity to re-examine the colonial past, some Commonwealth nations can start considering end of historical ties, Charles will be forced to meet the challenges in a more direct way than his mother.
Will he do and say the right things? Will anything from his past emerge that could trigger a backlash? Is the internet age a trap for an old-school monarch? Either way, it now falls to a privileged 73-year-old white man to navigate the terrain of so-called ‘identity politics’ that continues to take hold in Britain and beyond.
By definition, a constitutional monarchy is a paradox. It is understood that monarchs are shielded from direct political influence or legislative power. Even so, in her 70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth has accrued less tangible power under the reigns of 15 different British prime ministers and more than 150 prime ministers of other Commonwealth realms. Any opinions she had on political matters would have an impact, which is part of why they were so rare.
King Charles’ views are much more public than those of his mother: as Prince of Wales, he was active in promoting causes and sharing opinions on a range of topics including climate change, London architecture and even a plus slim monarchy. But he was aware that this would have to change after he became king. “It is clear that I will not be able to do the same things that I did as an heir,” he said in a Interview with the BBC 2018adding that he would not get involved in such sovereign political matters as he was “not so stupid”.
Still, it’s unclear if he can suddenly go neutral. The greatest risk could indeed come from the camps (in particular environmentalists) that he has supported in the past and which may not accept that he is silent as king.
The passing of the crown is a reminder of how important the monarchy is to the British people – fueling everything from national unity to the tourism economy. But it’s also a reminder that everything has been maintained for the past 70 years by the Queen.
Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II stamp
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The example of Spain
For the media, both in the UK and abroad, King Charles is a new story and a new opportunity to reopen old questions. Amid the general public’s distaste for extreme privilege, The New York Times published a presentation four days after Charles took the throne, describing tax breaks and exorbitant personal wealth, at a time when Britain was facing deep budget cuts and rising levels of poverty and food bank use nearly doubledpainting the picture of a king grossly disconnected from his people.
Could the king be persuaded or even forced to abdicate?
But perhaps even more relevant is another aspect of Charles’ privilege: his meaning of privilege. Just during his first week as King, new videos of him appeared chastise the staff and ranting about the pen he’d been given to sign documents. Sympathy may be the most important quality of any modern monarch hoping to maintain the goodwill of his subjects.
Any one of these factors – from his background to his politics to his mannerisms – (or a combination of all of them) could quickly turn the plot against Charles. If the public deemed the new king unfit to rule, could he be persuaded or even forced to abdicate? A sense of duty, if royal rhetoric is to be believed, would demand it for the good of the monarchy.
Spain offers a relatively recent example of a king being driven from his throne, as Juan Carlos’ slow disgrace in the public eye led him to quit eight years ago, passing his title to his son, the Crown Prince. Spain’s current King Felipe VI has a glamorous wife and beloved children that the nation loves to see grow up. He also doesn’t have his father’s luggage to carry.
Sound familiar…? King William V sounds quite pleasant.
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